We speak to the new studio from ex-Rockstar Leeds and Blast Furnace developers

Fierce Kaiju’s game-changing ambitions

Last week, new studio Fierce Kaiju opened in Yorkshire.

It is staffed by a collective of employees that previously worked at Rockstar Leeds and the defunct Blast Furnace, but the new team has been working together longer than you think.

Formed of developers that have broken new ground on an array of gaming handhelds, the Fierce Kaiju team have turned their attention to the largely uncharted realms of virtual reality with its upcoming title Viral, currently in development for Samsung’s Gear VR.

We caught up with co-founders Dan Roberts and Paul Colls to find out more about this ambitious new studio. 

Where did the idea to open this studio originate? How did the venture begin?

Paul Colls: We were all working together at The Blast Furnace in Leeds, which unfortunately closed up at the start of the year. The general consensus was that a lot of the team really wanted to keep working together, while not committing to anything too risky since many people had new families to support.

One idea we had was for a collective, working remotely and at people’s own pace to fit around their responsibilities, on a game made entirely for fun. This group gained the name Fierce Kaiju, our loyal Twitter followers will be able to recount those days.

However, as time went on, it became clear that a few of us really wanted to make a proper professional go of it, to take the plunge into a true development studio with all the commitment that requires. So we got the lawyers in and set up Fierce Kaiju Ltd.

Dan Roberts: Personally, I found myself with little interest in upping sticks across the country to work on someone else’s game. Pretty much every game I’ve made in my career, I’ve been on from the very start. If it wasn’t going to be my own thing, I’d have probably thought about trying something entirely new.

So when I learned that Paul was interested in kicking off FK Ltd properly, I was more than happy to jump in and share the load. The core of this team have worked together for a long time – going back to 2000, I think it was. We achieved loads in that time. Keeping together just seemed like the right thing to do.

Where did the name come from?

Paul Colls: From the off we knew that we wanted to be forward-facing and engage with our audience, so we looked for something that we felt would appeal to gamers and have an exciting and mysterious connotation.

From the first iteration of FK to the second, the name just stuck as something that would resonate. Plus its a good excuse to draw big scary monsters everywhere. Full Phat Design in the Midlands did a great job with the logo and the website, and nailing the vibe we’re after.

As a team, we get very excited by new tech – certainly that which looks like it’s here to change the game. Working on VR aligned perfectly with us wanting to create new and unique experiences. It felt like a great way to announce ourselves to the world.

Paul Colls, Fierce Kaiju

What hurdles did you encounter in opening a new studio, and how did you overcome them?

Paul Colls: On a personal level I found myself pondering my own achievements and wondering whether it would be enough. Setting up a company and getting work is not a particularly easy process or one that I was familiar with, especially in the circumstances we found ourselves in.

Regardless we put faith in our abilities as developers and as people, and then we put everything into getting Fierce Kaiju off the ground.

We know that we can deliver great experiences, and we know that we want to continue to do so at the level that we have come to expect from ourselves. But we needed to move fast both creatively and logistically, so maintaining that quality is a concern when time is tight.

Our experience served us well. Hurdles seemed to become minor bumps as we motored through our formation and the development of our first title. It was a big gamble but we had to push for it, we wanted it that much.

Dan Roberts: It was certainly interesting, with tight deadlines on Viral running parallel to all the hard work it takes to get a brand new company up and running. In a very small team – smaller than I think any of us have worked before – you find yourself doing stuff and taking on responsibilities you’ve never previously had to as part of your career. Paul stepped up as Mr Admin while simultaneously designing Viral, and I think the game is actually going to ship with some of my code in it, which is …yeah. It’s all fun, though.

What will make your studio stand out from those already in Yorkshire?

Paul Colls: Well firstly I should point out that we are friends with many of the studios in Yorkshire. But I think it’s fair for me to say that we’re looking at what will make us stand out globally – that’s no slight on Yorkshire, it’s more a sign of our intent.

But to answer the question I think it’s an easy one: it’s our games and our approach to making them. We’re looking to create entirely new experiences. We want to be at the forefront of innovation; as i say not just amongst our peers, but amongst developers the world over.

How has your experience at Rockstar and Activision prepared you for life at Fierce Kaiju?

Paul Colls: I loved my time at both places, and my experiences with them made me the developer I am today. With Rockstar they have a knack for keeping themselves relevant, sometimes with stuff that’s unrelated to games – primarily music and culture. Many try to emulate this, but nobody does this as well as Rockstar. In addition they back it up by delivering extremely compelling content time and time again.

I personally find this very inspiring, and it’s certainly something I want to develop as we move forwards with Fierce Kaiju: keeping the studio relevant on a sort of cultural level. It’s a long term goal that means a lot to us.

With Activision, I learned much more about the industry on a business level, something I’d not really had the chance to explore at Rockstar. They really helped me to grow as a person and a developer on many levels. I think there’s no bigger test than Eric Hershberg walking into the room whilst your practising your presentation due for the following day and him saying something along the lines of: "I’m looking forward to seeing your work guys, I’ll be there in an hour!"

Dan Roberts: We’re all getting on a bit now – even Paul. He was about 12 or something when we first started working together.

I think one of the most valuable experiences of a long career working on lots of widely different stuff is that, yes, it teaches you which buttons to press. But crucially it also teaches you what buttons NOT to press. By this point, we feel a lot more confident about instinctively dodging a lot of pitfalls that we might have tripped over only a few years ago.

That said, it’s a whole new ball game, so we’re having to learn tons more, experiences which will really benefit us in the future.

I really enjoy thinking about ‘3D’ as more than just polygons, but as true 3D space. Its a whole new way of delivering visuals right into the players eyeballs. Seeing people duck as something flies past their head, that always raises a smile.

Dan Roberts, Fierce Kaiju

What can you tell us about your first project, Viral?

Paul Colls: Viral is a VR title so it’s going to be a new experience for many people that try it, but it’s also pretty old school at heart, and with a very simple gameplay system. You look around the scene, find an enemy that’s giving you a funny look, and tap your button to take it out. The whole game is played with one single button.

It’s very accessible, but requires real skill to play well. It’s all about the high scores, bettering your own score as well as those of your friends. You need to think about your actions, build up score modifiers with trick shots, get quick-kill combos, use power ups and so on. We’ve got a system to move you around a level to get the best kill angle, it’s not just a static target range. There’s many ways to play, its pretty compelling stuff.

Dan Roberts: Style-wise, its pretty simple, but I think it’s well suited to the platform. I don’t like visual noise, I like scenes to breathe and for forms to speak for themselves in their own space. With stereoscopic 3D you’ve got the extra dimension of true depth to work in – it’s an exciting canvas for creating something visually arresting from relatively simple and clean shapes.

Why make your first game for virtual reality?

Paul Colls: As a team, we get very excited by new tech – certainly that which looks like it’s here to change the game. We played around with a DK1 kit, which even in such an early stage got us and anyone we showed it to very excited, it feels like a real turning point is upon us. Then you see Sony with the Morpheus and VR has a real momentum, for me that’s because it now works.

We got wind of a potential opportunity to develop for Samsung and Oculus’ Gear VR and we had to go for it. Working on VR aligned perfectly with us wanting to create new and unique experiences. It felt like a great way to announce ourselves to the world.

Dan Roberts: Yeah, as a team we agreed we don’t want to repeat ourselves, to keep pushing forward with new tech or doing unprecedented stuff with existing tech.

Historically, going all the way back to the early ’00s, the core of this team made a name for ourselves doing stuff you’re not supposed to be able to do on the platform – they said you couldn’t do a full 3D engine on the Gameboy Advance, so we did one. They said you couldn’t do a fully featured GTA on a PSP, so we went and did one. Then when we proved that with huge success, they said that you CERTAINLY couldn’t do a decent GTA on the Nintendo DS, so we looked at it closely, made the changes that were most appropriate, and the resulting game is still the highest rated DS title ever.

We’re not really interested in the rulebook. The really exciting thing about VR is that the rulebook hasn’t really been written yet, so it seems like a perfect fit for us.

How does it differ development for previous platforms?

Paul Colls: Even though many of the tools are the same, you really have to rethink how you’d otherwise approach the design. Systems or features that you take for granted on traditional platforms, often need changes to work well in VR, and sometimes don’t work at all. We’re finding that we really have to think about camera transitions, player movement and our UI. Simple things like camera shake when you get hit by something don’t really work, this is also true for many other things that you assume might just work.

Dan Roberts: I really enjoy thinking about ‘3D’ as more than just polygons, but as true 3D space. Its a whole new way of delivering visuals right into the players eyeballs. Seeing people duck as something flies past their head, that always raises a smile.

Historically, going all the way back to the early ’00s, the core of this team made a name for ourselves doing stuff you’re not supposed to be able to do on the platform. They said you couldn’t do GTA on Nintendo DS, but our resulting game is still the highest rated DS title ever.

Dan Roberts, Fierce Kaiju

Are you hiring/planning to expand Fierce Kaiju? If so, what/who are you looking for?

Paul Colls: Right now we’re focussed on finishing Viral, but working on the plans for our follow-up title, which is a bit more ambitious in scope. We’re only a tiny team right now, so we assume we’ll be looking to expand somewhat to help realise the next game, but we haven’t fully worked out those details.

Dan Roberts: When it comes to it, talent is key. Talent and the enthusiasm and brains to apply it to what we’re about. Experience is always useful, of course, but we’re as likely to look for prodigious graduates as we are guys with 20 years in the industry.

What is the long term plan for Fierce Kaiju?

Paul Colls: We want to make the games that we’re interested in making, games that we feel might make an impact, maybe down to some great new core mechanics, a unique look or a truly compelling way of delivering narrative. We want people to feel eager to get their hands on what we do. To do that we need to build a really strong team, having fun making fun. That’s the ideal.

We intend building up a community around us. We’ll be making a real effort to talk with gamers via social media and other outlets, engage them in conversation and listen to what they enjoy and don’t enjoy about our games. We’d like to reach out to new audiences wherever possible.

Whilst we’ve started with a VR title and we’re finding that tech really exciting to work with, we’ll develop on what ever platform feels right for the experience we want to build. We hope to make many friends and valuable partnerships in order to do what we have always done, build great games.

Dan Roberts: It’s clear that this is a really important time in the history of the games industry. Not only is there some really exciting tech about to burst onto the scene, but there’s been a general shift in both how people consume games and their attitudes towards them. Developers and publishers alike are having to re-evaluate their approach. So just to say: it’s really exciting to be a new studio at this point, we really get a chance to help shape the future.

Paul Colls: Yep, I totally echo that sentiment. Of all the opportunities that presented themselves to us this year, I believe that the whole team couldn’t think of anything we’d rather be doing than this.

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